The Virgin and Child with the young Saint John the Baptist was a common subject from the 15th century onwards. John the Baptist is identified by his camel skin and reed cross. The kneeling woman has often been identified as Saint Catherine but she is shown without her usual attribute of the wheel on which she was tortured. Shepherds can be seen in the background; they - and the angel in the sky - might allude to the Annunciation to the Shepherds (New Testament, Luke 2: 8-17).
In the 19th century this painting was said to have been signed and dated 1533.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): One of the most celebrated and sought after pigments through the ages has been ultramarine, a vivid blue colourant originally derived from lapis lazuli. Take a walk through the National Gallery and you can follow the changes in its use from the medieval period to the present day as I discovered earlier, when I met up with chemist and author Philip Ball.
First stop on our tour was 'The Virgin and Child with Saints', an altarpiece by Duccio, which is dominated by the Virgin Mary swathed in an intense blue robe. As we looked at the 14th-century masterpiece, I asked Philip why ultramarine was so prized in the medieval age.
Philip Ball: It was precious because it was extremely costly and the reason for that primarily was that it came from a very long way away… it was very hard to get hold of. At that time there was only one known source and that was some mines in a place called Badakhshan in what is now Afghanistan, so they were very remote. And in these mines, a certain sort of stone could be found which was called lapis lazuli, and that’s the source of the blue pigment. And so to extract the blue pigment was a very laborious process that involved making the powder and then mixing it up with wax and oils and resins to make a kind of dough and then you had to kneed this dough in water repeatedly again and again and gradually the blue stuff within it flushed out into the water and that eventually settled to the bottom and could be dried and extracted.
So in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, you see it being used only for the most precious parts of a painting. So in religious iconography, it’s very very common to see as here, the virgin painted in blue robes and that was, in a sense… that was a reflection of the fact that materials were considered then to almost be imbued with a certain sort of spiritual quality… that if you used precious materials in a painting, then you were creating something that was going to have more power as a devotional offering to God.
Miranda Hinkley: So you wanted to show me this Titian, Philip, which is ‘The Aldobrandini Madonna’, and there’s quite a lot of blue in this painting, but it looks quite different to the blue we were looking at before.
Philip Ball: That’s right. There’s a lot of sky and blue mountain-scape, which is painted in one of the cheaper blues, in this case azurite, but the Madonna here is again in blue robes, and again this is ultramarine, but it looks quite different from the Duccio painting. It’s much, much lighter. And the reason for that is during the Middle Ages and the early part of the Renaissance, to bind your pigment, primarily they used egg yolk, whereas Titian is using oils, and if you mix ultramarine, the pigment, in oil, it looks somewhat different; it looks in particular quite a bit more translucent, so if you’re concerned to get a strongly opaque blue, then you have to mix it with other pigments, you have to mix it with white, and here Titian’s used quite a lot of white with the ultramarine and the blue looks much, much lighter; in fact much more like he’s really, I think, concerned with mimicking the appearance of silk – so mimicking the appearance of an expensive material rather than simply laying down ultramarine in a sort of slab, if you like, and letting that speak for itself.
So, as painters started to use oils, they found that they had to change the way that they used ultramarine and other pigments, and they had to start, if you like, adulterating it with other pigments, and to use a lighter range of blues as a result. And that that had the consequence of changing not only the kind of blues that we see, but also of starting to erode the mystique that ultramarine had as a precious pigment, because if you’re applying it more or less pure, then you’re making a statement about the materials that you’ve used, the expense of those, and the role that that expense has in being a devotional offering, whereas you’re applying it here where it doesn’t look like the ultramarine that you’re so familiar with, then you’re not really making that statement anymore, you’re simply looking for a nice blue.
Miranda Hinkley: Well, here we are in the Impressionist room and we’re surrounded by Van Goghs and Cézannes… I mean, the blues here are just a world away from the blue that we looked at before.
Philip Ball: Well, that’s right, and there are many reasons for that. In the 19th century, a whole range of new blues became available, most prominently the pigment known as cobalt blue. So it became much easier for artists to achieve the sort of bright blues that ultramarine offered. But all the same, they still wanted something that would give them the real appearance of ultramarine – in fact, they wanted ultramarine itself, they just wanted it at a cheaper price. And so 19th-century chemists set out to make it. It took painters a little while to trust it. To begin with they sort of had the prejudice that natural ultramarine had to be better in some way, but gradually they came round to the idea that synthetic ultramarine was as good as the natural material, and we see here the painting by Van Gogh, 'The Wheatfield with Cypresses', where he’s used it in his sky… you wouldn’t know that it was ultramarine here, the sky looks a fairly sort of pale, washed out blue, and this goes to show how routine it became for painters to use this stuff, and they didn’t really have to make a big deal…
Miranda Hinkley: And so really by this point, blue isn’t something that’s particularly special anymore, it’s just another colour in the palette. I mean, presumably, if you really wanted to you could go out and get synthetic ultramarine and paint your bedroom bright blue.
Philip Ball: You could! I guess we’ve kind of lost the aesthetic that would tend to make us do that… we would see that as incredibly garish. But it’s true that, you know, we take bright colours like that for granted now. But there are some artists who I think still retained a sense that colour and materials have some intrinsic sort of value to them, almost a spiritual value to them, and you can see that in the way that Yves Klein used blue. Ultramarine blue, the famous Klein blue, is simply ultramarine, but what he noticed and what you notice as soon as you see this stuff as a pigment is that as a dry pigment it’s incredibly deep and lustrous and it’s very hard to capture that in a paint. He wanted to try to do that and he worked with a Parisian chemicals manufacturer to find a binder that would bind ultramarine without destroying that lustre. So that’s what he came up with and that’s basically what international Klein blue is that he covered all these objects with. And he had a sense that I think harks back to medieval times that was celebrating the materials, the materiality of the paint, rather than simply thinking of it as a colour that you could put on canvas or whatever. It was a kind of illustration that materials were important.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Philip Ball, whose book 'Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour', is available in Gallery shops.